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Business in Vancouver

'Robo-advisers' making a play for jobs in the Canadian financial sector

AI-powered platform already managing US$0.9 billion to be made available to the public in two months' time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 June, 2016, 6:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 12:25pm

Walk in to any major grocery store in British Columbia, Canada and shoppers will no doubt find an unmanned terminal subbing in for a cashier, allowing customers to scan their own groceries before paying their bill.

So it’s little wonder a June report from Toronto's Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BIIE) cautions service-oriented workers like cashiers and retail salespeople are at a 92 per cent to 97 per cent risk of being affected by advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI) within 20 years.

Davyde Wachell, CEO of Vancouver’s Responsive Capital Management, even envisions artificial intelligence going so far as to shake up the job market in the financial sector.

“Wealth management businesses that don’t use AI and don’t use machine learning are going to get left in the dust,” he said.

Already, robo-advisers are using automated tools to manage portfolios – a system known as passive portfolio management that relies on price averages to match market returns.

Wachell, who studied AI and machine learning at Stanford University in the early 2000s “before it became a craze,” says it’s only natural for AI to make a play for the robo-adviser market.

His company developed an AI-powered platform as part of a partnership with Genus Capital Management, which is now using it to manage US$0.9 billion of institutional and private wealth.

In August, Responsive’s platform will become available to the public.

Wachell said his own office will be populated with “centaurs” – a U.S. military term referring to humans using AI methods in their work.

“The machines are there. They do what they’re good at, which is scanning tons of data, giving us analysis and metrics, and showing us the results of models. And then our CIO [chief information officer] will look at it,” he said.

“There’s always that level of human oversight.”

So Canadians shouldn’t expect the labour market to resemble The Jetsons in 20 years, with four-limbed robots taking over all the routine tasks.

But the BIIE report concludes 43 per cent of jobs in B.C. are at risk of being affected by advances in machine learning or AI.

“While this does not mean that these occupations will necessarily be lost, it does suggest that these occupations are more susceptible to being automated in the future,” BIIE policy adviser Creig Lamb wrote in his study.

Meanwhile, Responsive’s AI advancements won’t be focused solely on financial management.

The company is also experimenting with AI-powered chatbots to study and adapt to users’ behaviour when signing up for an account. Justin Long, founder of Vancouver-based dating app Bernie, says the rapid advancement of AI is creating a “very, very legitimate fear” about potential job losses in certain sectors.

“It’s also an economic adjustment,” he said.

“It’s been happening over time for years and years and years where slowly but surely any sort of corporation or organization has found a way to automate something, they’ve found a way to streamline a process. This is natural business behaviour.”